Fruitvale: The Town's Gem 

With its thriving businesses and large immigrant population, Fruitvale is uniquely Oakland: diverse, welcoming, family-oriented, community-minded — and too-often overlooked.

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click to enlarge Los Cocos, and Fruitvale Shoe Repair, both located off Fruitvale Ave. and International Blvd. - PHOTO BY AZUCENA RASILLA
  • Photo by Azucena Rasilla
  • Los Cocos, and Fruitvale Shoe Repair, both located off Fruitvale Ave. and International Blvd.

Fruitvale's family-oriented vibe has helped Enriqueta Soriano with her two businesses, both on International Boulevard, roughly a block from each other. Express readers might be familiar with the Soriano family — we published a story on their Tacos Los Michoacanos food truck in our fall 2017 Taste issue. In it, Soriano's son, Enrique described why it was important to carry on his parent's legacy with the food truck as Fruitvale grapples with gentrification.

Soriano has owned and operated El Palacio de Novias y Quinceañeras in the same space since 2000. It's a well-established business in the neighborhood, and it specializes in wedding, bridesmaids, baptisms, and quinceañera dresses and services.

Soriano immigrated to the United States in 1985 and built her business, first by doing cleaning jobs and then selling clothes at the Coliseum flea market before opening a small shop on 31st Avenue. Eventually, she had enough capital to open the space that the store now occupies at 34th Avenue and International.

"I have customers who have gotten their wedding dresses here, and when they have kids, they come and get the outfits for their kids' baptisms," a proud Soriano said in Spanish, while showing off the massive inventory in her store. "They are like family, and it shows how if you provide good customer service, they all come back."

But Soriano is also concerned that with Oakland becoming a prime location to live and work, more longtime residents of Fruitvale will get priced out. "That is one of the changes I've seen," she said, "a lot of people are moving out. I still remain hopeful that people will be able to stay."

Like Iglesias, Soriano described Fruitvale as a community with a strong identity. "I feel like I'm in Mexico," she said, describing what it's like to roam the neighborhood. "If I'm craving Mexican food, there's plenty of restaurants, fresh fruit, delicious ice cream. You feel like you are walking around the country you are from."

In Fruitvale, nobody does ice cream better than Luis Abundis, who owns and operates Nieves Cinco de Mayo at the Public Market in Fruitvale Village. Abundis is one of the original tenants who opened in 2007 when the development was still under construction. His artisanal carafe ice creams cause furor, especially on summer days when people line out the door to buy a mangonada.

Mexican food is, of course, not the only type of cuisine that you'll find in Fruitvale — Los Cocos, located just off Fruitvale Avenue and International, is the oldest Salvadoran restaurant in Oakland, and when it opened in 1985, it was the only Salvadoran eatery in Fruitvale. If you're looking to venture out of the Mexican food realm and have never tried pupusas, Los Cocos should be you first stop — you might find owner Rosa Gonzalez behind the grill.

Soriano said she will continue running El Palacio now that she has officially passed the baton to her kids to run Tacos Los Michoacanos. "Once I'm ready to retire, I hope that my daughter, who knows the business very well, carries on with the store," she said.

Although Fruitvale has a large Latinx community, other ethnic groups still call the neighborhood home. If you have driven on Foothill Boulevard, chances are you have passed Mi Ranchito Market — located directly across from Peña's Bakery, another long-standing and community-loved establishment. The name Mi Ranchito Market might indicate that it's owned by someone of Latinx descent, an immigrant perhaps, which is partly true. Mi Ranchito is owned by Mohammed Alomari, an immigrant from Yemen.

"Whenever I talk to him [Alomari], I always ask, where are you from? And when he responds, 'Yemen,' I always say, 'Man, what part of Mexico is that?'" Iglesias said of the welcoming embrace Alomari has received from his immigrant comrades.

"I've always been fascinated with his business," Iglesias said. "When you walk in there, most of the staff is Latino, and there's products from everywhere."

Jose Rivera is passionate about talking about Fruitvale and all of its past and current businesses. Although not a business owner, Rivera runs the Oakland Latinos United Facebook page, which he started back in 2003. The page is a time capsule that focuses on Oakland's Latinx history, which he contends is too often overlooked. Rivera was raised in Jingletown and Fruitvale, and the history of those two neighborhoods are especially significant for him.

Many of the Facebook posts are "throwbacks" — old photos of his family, as well as historical archives with detailed captions for followers of the page to get a glimpse of what Oakland used to be. While he doesn't live in Oakland anymore, he continues to have deep ties with his hometown. "We moved [to Richmond] during the crack epidemic, and gang-banging era," Rivera recalled. "My mom wanted us to get out so we wouldn't get caught up."

Despite living in Richmond, Rivera often finds himself back home — not only because he works in Fruitvale, but because he feels it's important to remain rooted in The Town.

Recently, Rivera posted a sepia-toned photo of the Brown Brothers Shoes, which used to be located near the corner of 34th Avenue and Farnam Street. "Many people who grew up in the Fruitvale remember this place. It was the go-to place for Stacy Adams [shoes]," Rivera wrote on the caption.

"My primo Jaime Guzman worked there," read one comment.

The idea behind the page stems from Rivera's desire to learn more about Oakland's history. He calls himself "a natural history buff." As a teenager, he became interested in the Chicano Movement, but in the books and articles he was reading, he wasn't able to find much information about the movement in Oakland. "Oakland and the Bay Area were almost never mentioned," he said. "Growing up, I remember hearing about the Chicano movement and how Cesar Chavez used to come to Fruitvale."

Some might not be aware that Oakland was key to Chavez and his movement, a place to kick off his community organizing. One scroll through Oakland Wiki's Cesar Chavez page, and you can find many political connections that bounded Chavez to Oakland, like endorsing Ron Dellums in 1970 during his first run for U.S. House of Representatives. Rivera is one of the writers of the history-related pages on Oakland Wiki.

"I started researching books about Oakland, and again, it's like we didn't exist," he said. "I refused to believe that we were this immigrant group that just came here from the border yesterday."

With his page, and the historical knowledge that he has acquired through his years of research, Rivera wants to educate others on what was in Oakland before — while not taking away from the contributions of the Irish, Portuguese, and German immigrants who lived in Fruitvale before Latinx. "A lot of the businesses now owned by Latinos were sold by Portuguese," Rivera noted.

My conversation with Rivera revealed not only his vast knowledge, but also the importance of having people like him telling the stories of The Town. As he told me about the Fruitvale he remembers, I couldn't help but think: Can the Fruitvale community continue to fight against displacement?

Can it continue to be the self-sufficient and vibrant hub that new immigrants call home? 

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